How I Make My Woodblock Prints in Ten Steps

I'm giving a workshop on woodblock printing in my studio in a couple of weeks (there are still spots open and you can sign up here). In honor of the occasion I thought I would share my process for making woodblock prints.

Printmaking is like cooking--it can be a highly skilled craft honed over a lifetime of practice, but anyone can learn to fry a great egg. Woodblock printing is a great medium because there's room for all levels of skill, from a first attempt at an omelette to a world class sous vide souffle. 

Just like cooking, there are lots of different ways to make a woodblock print and every printer does things a little differently. Here is my way, in ten steps (with lovely photos taken by the talented Andrea Wenglowskyj of Kind Aesthetic).

Woodblock printing is a form of relief printing--the simplest (and oldest) of the four major printmaking processes in terms of technique (the others are intaglio or etching, serigraphy or screenprinting, and lithography). It is a labor-intensive method of making images which is one of the things I like best about it. There's nothing quite like a few hours of carving or the rhythms of printing to quiet my mind, and I hope everyone can one day experience the supreme satisfaction of pulling a finished print off the block. 

1. Designing the Image 

Depending on what kind of image I have in mind, I use graphite or Nero pencils, markers, charcoal or watercolor paint (shown here) to come up with my design. I often use tracing paper or vellum to make changes and try different layers until I come up with something I like. Then I scan the image and, if I'm adding text, set it in Illustrator or InDesign (mostly to keep the typeface looking consistent from print to print even though it will be carved by hand). I have plans for a future post about how I use computers and digital printing in my process, so stay tuned for that! Suffice it to say for now that I am grateful to have these super helpful tools to augment the handwork of traditional printmaking processes.

2. Carving

This is one of the most meditative parts of the process. I use Japanese Shina plywood which has a very smooth surface and a fine, strong grain and Japanese style carving tools with blades of different shapes including V-gouges, U-gouges, straight knives and flat chisels depending on what kind of marks I want to make. 

3. More Carving

Like I said, making a woodblock print is labor intensive, and this part can take hours! But as long as I'm careful about my posture and take breaks to stretch, I could carve for days and days and not get tired of it. There's no gray in woodblock printing (unless you use gray ink of course), just places on the print with ink or no ink. So shapes and values are created by juxtaposing different textures, and its fun to come up with these patterns as I carve.

4. Preparing the Ink

I like Gamblin relief inks--they are newly developed since I was a student and I find that they produce brilliant colors without having to over-ink the block. I use a Takach rubber hand brayer--one of my most prized art tools and a thing I take a lot of care to maintain.

5. Inking the Block

Inking the block is the trickiest part of the process and it takes practice to get a feel for how much ink to roll on the block. Things like humidity, the types of pigments in the colors I'm using, and how detailed the image is can all be variables in this delicate equation.

6. Registration

There are lots of different tricks to make sure the image shows up in the place you want it to on the paper once you lay the block on the press (the printmakers' term for this is "registration"). I use metal registration pins and tabs taped to each piece of paper so that every print is positioned in the same way (taping on the tabs is one of the hidden sources of manual labor in the printing process!). The block goes into a wooden jig I made to convert my quirky old tabletop etching press into a press that is appropriate for relief printing (without it there would be too much pressure on the edges of the block). Then I lay the paper on top of the inked block using the pins and tabs as a guide, and then cover it with an old rubber blanket recycled from the offset lithography process to cushion the paper and protect the wood from the pressure of the press.

7. Printing

My press has a star wheel which always reminds me of steering a ship. Arrrrr!

8. Quality Control

There's nothing more satisfying than pulling a finished print off the block--unless it has an unsightly mistake! Smudging, "noise" from the carved bits of the block printing where I didn't want them to, off-kilter registration and uneven inking are some of the many opportunities for a failed print. Even the best printmakers plan for 20-50% of a day's prints to fail, which is why an edition--a set of prints that all look the same and are numbered and signed--is such a prized accomplishment. 

9. Drying

Check out my rack! My homemade drying rack (adapted from this one by Sherrie York of Brush and Baren) is one of my favorite parts of my setup in my studio. Its suspended on a pulley system so I can pull it up to the ceiling and out of the way (and closer our giant ceiling fan) to save space in our Brooklyn-sized studio. Prints take a few days to a week to be fully dry, depending on the humidity levels in the air. 

10. Hanging the Finished Print

There you have it folks, a finished woodblock print! Thanks for reading--I hope you will join us and try your hand at woodblock printing at the upcoming workshop